The Two Futures of Sustainable Urban Agriculture

by Lexi Harder

Published: 11/13/17, Last updated: 5/23/19

If you’ve read my previous blogs on Ecocentric, you’ll know that I work at Oko Farms, New York City’s only outdoor aquaponics farm. This is pretty special — while there are a handful of farms in New York City that use hydroponics and/or aquaponics, all but Oko Farms grow indoors. Increasingly, when I tell people I work at an aquaponics farm, they assume I also work indoors, perhaps envisioning a warehouse where plants grow in stacked towers, bathed in purple LED lights.

Investment in Vertical Farming

In the past decade or so, the idea of vertical farming has gained popularity in the mainstream. The idea goes that growing space can be increased in urban areas by growing vertical stacks of plants inside unused warehouses, usually with hydroponics. Proponents of vertical farming say that this method uses less water than traditional agriculture, and by being indoors has the benefit of being protected from natural pests and unfavorable weather conditions. As the tech industry has caught on to the need for sustainably grown local produce in our cities, venture capitalists are funneling millions of dollars into these indoor, data-driven, controlled environment agriculture projects.

For instance, AeroFarms, a Newark based aeroponics startup, recently raised $40 million in Series D funding and boasts partnerships with the ubiquitous brand IKEA and celebrity chef David Chang. San Francisco hydroponics startup Plenty currently holds the prize for most venture capital funding raised by an agricultural startup, having reached $200 million in Series B funding this summer. Both companies claim to use 99 percent less water than traditional agriculture to provide up to 350 times the yields, and in Plenty’s case, use no pesticides whatsoever. As of yet, both companies are still not at the stage where they are providing their leafy greens to grocery stores at a meaningful nationwide scale.

It certainly looks like at least investors are putting their stakes for the future of agriculture in warehouse production. But as the technology is so new, there are very few large-scale successful models in operation. Gotham Greens, which uses hydroponics to grow greens in four rooftop greenhouses in New York and Chicago, claims to be profitable by selling greens in supermarkets. Companies have to figure out how to contend with the energy costs of heating and cooling their huge indoor spaces, in addition to providing adequate light to grow the necessary amounts of greens to break even. Currently, most vertical farms’ business models rely on selling greens, as the technologies aren’t yet developed for root vegetables or berries and baby and micro lettuces can be sold for a premium.

But even if and when these technological problems are solved, the access and equity problems of the current food system will not be. Urban food insecure communities will likely not have access to warehouse-grown lettuce, as long as it must be sold at current prices. Getting into the business of indoor farming requires expensive education and high startup costs that are prohibitive to low-income people sharing in potential profits of the industry. And as long as vertical farms like AeroFarms use proprietary technology to corner the indoor farming market, they are mimicking the current industrial agricultural model that allows companies like Monsanto to dominate the business of agriculture worldwide.

Another Vision of Sustainable Urban Agriculture

But this is not the only vision of the future of sustainable urban agriculture. As I detailed in my last blog post, cities have a long history with subsistence agriculture. Today, urban dwellers all over the world are becoming reacquainted with growing food in their neighborhoods, alongside addressing the lack of green spaces in cities and food security and food justice issues. For immigrants to New York City, joining one of the city’s 533 community gardens provides access to otherwise unavailable fresh food from their home cultures. At East New York Farms! in Long Island, New York, farming is combined with community education and social-justice focused internships for young people. They also grow crops that specifically serve the Caribbean and South Asian community in Long Island. The organization 596 Acres in New York City provides members of the public with knowledge of vacant city land, so that community members can create green spaces in neighborhoods where there might not be any.

Critics of the urban farming movement point to the fact that it would be impossible to feed a city’s entire population with urban-grown produce alone. Even if every vacant lot was productive, and every rooftop boasted its own Brooklyn Grange, cities would still have to outsource a good percentage of their food. Some even argue that empty lots should be used to build more affordable housing, as it has been argued that urban farms can lead to the gentrification of vulnerable neighborhoods. But more than fresh food, urban farms provide many necessary services to cities, such as increased access to green space and places for people to learn valuable skills, and ecological services such as mitigating the urban heat-island effect and creating green storm-water management.

Will the future of sustainable urban farming look like a small farm on every block, managed by and for the members of its community? Will the future be giant warehouses full of greens, ready to be trucked to nearby grocery stores? Policy that’s being debated right now will play a big role in determining the outcome. In New York City, City Council’s Committee on Land Use is in talks to pass a bill that would require the city to create a comprehensive urban farming plan, and many other US cities are passing legislation to further support their own urban farming initiatives. The US National Organic Standards Board has just voted on whether or not hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics should be eligible for USDA organic certification — and they voted against aeroponics (but for both hydroponics and aquaponics). While I can’t see into the future, I know that I don’t plan on stopping farming in the city any time soon, and I’m excited for the coming decades.

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